The perils of a homeless soul and a soulless home

Home isn’t something we think about so much as sense. We smell some combination of clothes drying, onions frying and flowers dying. We hear the dog’s scuffling paws on the bare floorboards and anticipate the creaks as we stumble through corridors half asleep. We see the stains on the walls, the cracks in the ceiling and think, “I ought to fix that.” We taste the morning coffee before it has brewed. The home has a pulse; our lives revolve around its rhythm. Home breathes and we breathe with it.

Twenty-five years ago, Michael (not his real name) was sourcing chimney pieces and statues for millionaires’ homes around the globe. He flew on the Concorde, had a five-bedroom house in Sussex and a gallery on London’s Kings Road. “I would go marvel at his stock,” says Will Fisher, founder of Jamb, an antiques dealer. “Henry Cheere chimney pieces and statues, chocker with amazing gear. He was absolutely at the top of his game.”

Ten years ago, Michael got divorced and started drinking heavily. He broke down, lost his job, his home. He lost everything. He glazes over the details as if describing a dream.

home soul

He lived on the streets for a couple of years before he was picked up by an outreach charity and taken to a St Mungo’s hostel. “I loved it,” he says, “I had two bay windows, the odd painting, bits of furniture.” It didn’t last. When a neighbour burgled him, stole his laptop and beat him up, he was moved to another hostel in the area. “The broom cupboard,” he called it. “I have nothing but bitter memories.” Just before Michael left last January, a resident was killed.

No home, no soul

“When you become homeless,” says Michael, “you lose your soul.” You become feral, driven by the need to just stay alive. More than the cold or the damp or the hunger that comes with homelessness, “the fear was what I really hated,” he recalls. A preoccupation with simple survival leaves little room for self. Without a home, the moorings of your identity come unstuck. You become generically ‘homeless,’ losing the features of your personality along with your safe shelter.

'When you become homeless, you lose your soul.' Michael, former high-end antiques dealer
Now, Michael is living in a small council flat in the countryside where, “slowly, and in my own weird way, I am piecing my life back together,” he says. He has gathered autumn fruit and flowers from his garden and fashioned a festive display on the table. He has ferreted around in charity shops to replenish his antiques collection; 1920s Gainsborough chairs, old books, and a late 18th-century chest of drawers.

“It doesn’t bloody bother me that these things are battered to hell,” he says. In fact, they remind Michael of his childhood, and the old, tarnished and unvarnished look he was brought up on. Their recovery is furnishing his own recovery; his home and soul in one go.

No soul, no home

Will Fisher has gone from marvelling at Michael’s stock to owning stock of his own, with a showroom on Pimlico Green that’s equally chocker with amazing gear18th and 19th century English and Irish country house furniture, sculpture and curiosities. Will too believes the home and the soul are inseparable.

“What you take home with you is never what’s most valuable, but what has an essence,” he says. In his own home, he’s “surrounded by soothing objects that have a deep psychological influence.” These include stuffed dogs, inconsequential statues and other “silly things that bring immediate pleasure.” Nonetheless, he says these objects form “the fabric of my life.”

home soulIn 2012, he decided to get rid of it all. As a team from Christie’s auctioneers evaluated the contents of his home on a clipboard, he found himself agreeing to sell more and more until almost everything went under the hammer. “It was terrifying and cathartic, nauseating and exhilarating,” he recalls. The sale was more successful than anyone predicted. Will, unlike Michael, lucked out as the fabric of his life slipped through his fingers.

Will says his “ultimate fear” is losing his home, so it seems strange, masochistic even, to agree to the auction. Why did he do it? Is it maybe that in selling everything you release your true self, untethered from the limitations of physical moorings?

Will talks of Trappist monks, whose hospitality mantra is “if there’s anything you need, tell us, and we’ll teach you how to live without it.” Might it be healthier, he wonders, to be happy in an environment “you haven’t manipulated?” After all, there’s only so much that furniture and design can do to create an environment where we feel at home.

For Will and Michael, homes are dynamic, organic entities that leave a mark on us as much as we do on them. While one is reducing and the other is rebuilding the trappings of his home, both know that places and things mean nothing without life and soul. A house is a roof over our head. A home is a place in our heart.


Follow Flora on Twitter at @FloraENeville.

Photo credit: carnagenyc (header); Ben Yokitis (body); Jamb Ltd. (body)